Many self development/spiritual teachers’ today talk about “being present” or “living in the now” (which is the same thing really). It’s also part of Zen, which is often goes hand in hand with martial arts. But what does this actually mean, how can martial arts training help you achieve it and what benefits are there for you from both a self protection and everyday life point of view?
Let’s start with what is meant by “being present” or “living in the now”? This is a big subject which many books have been written about, so this is just a short overview. Many people spend most of their time living in regret over things they’ve done wrong, things they should have done but didn’t, things that other people have done to them, missed opportunities; whatever! They are spending a lot time focusing on their past and generally feeling bad and unhappy with it.
Others spend their time daydreaming about the future (long or short term). They feel that they’ll be happy when they get home from work, finish that course they’re doing, get a better job, leave a job, when they’re married, when their divorce comes through, when they go on holiday, when they get back home and can relax; whatever. These people are postponing being happy until sometime in the future so again they are feeling bad or unhappy in the present moment. This is not to say that we don’t make plans for the future or set goals; it is to say that stay present while do actually plan and goal-set and that we don’t postpone being happy until our plans and goals are achieved!
In both cases, those concerned are focusing their attention on being somewhere other than where they are now. Either they feel that they can’t be happy because of their past or they feel they can’t be happy until some future events happen. In the meantime they are physically in the present moment though mentally they are not. As many Eastern and holistic philosophies tell us, we cannot really be content until mind and body are one (in this case, mind focusing on the present where the body is). The more you put of being happy where you are now, the more you will never be properly happy and at peace with yourself at all. This is one of the key components to the Eastern ideal of reaching enlightenment. There is of course much to it than that and this is a very simplified overview.
Being able to actually focus our attention in the present moment most of the time is actually not very easy for most people. Usually most people only manage it for short periods of time.
Martial arts are great for bringing you into the present moment! If for example you are doing pre-arranged sparring and you facing somebody of a high standard, you know that if you don’t block/parry/evade, they’ll probably take your head off. That tends to focus the mind and shut out any thoughts of that row you had with your spouse, that stressful drive home after work or how you’d like to practice you most dangerous techniques on that illegitimate son of a . . . . . . female dog . . . . . . boss of yours at work. You are purely focused on this guy in front of you with a sinister expression on face, his eyes locked into your eyes and he moves like a bull on steroids (or at least it seems that way).
Everything else in the world, the past and future is shut out whilst you face this imminent threat, which you have to block and counter. The little bit of adrenalin generated helps you to move faster and the exertion helps you to produce endorphins (the brains “happy” chemicals). You are very present in the NOW and you feel good about it!
Any other form of exercise also generates endorphins which will help the feel-good factor. However, losing a goal/point/match etc simply does not have the same urgency as facing Mr Bull-On-Steroids trying to take your head off. By contrast, many people say that they enjoy jogging long distance as it allows them to get lost in their thoughts. Whilst this can have benefits too, it is not the same being forced into now (or lose your head).
Even with the basics and kata, you are required to maintain considerable concentration on both the accuracy of the movement and the intent of the technique being performed. There can be no getting lost in your thoughts here. You can get a bit distracted worrying about whether you are keeping up with your classmates or not, though you really shouldn’t bother about this. It is often said in martial arts that your main opponent is yourself, meaning you challenge yourself every time you train to continually improve. If you do this then you should be very focused in the present, examining your own techniques as you perform them and putting your full intention into every movement. Comparing yourself to others occasionally is alright as a way to measure your progress, but is not an end in itself.
All aspects of martial arts training, (whether focussing on perfecting technique or being partnered with somebody about to try to take your head off) will help you to focus in the moment. There will be times when you think, “oh no, he’s going to take my head off”, which is again looking into the future (albeit a few seconds into the future) rather than being in the precise moment. Some people will be consumed by such negative thoughts on a very regular basis. As discussed in a previous post, practicing Moksu and Mushin will help to silence these thoughts. However, training in an environment where we are constantly forced to focus on the present moment will also help us to silence those self doubting thoughts as well.
When you need to be very intensely in the present moment then it is very important to be able to silence any thoughts which by their very nature take you out of that moment. When faced by somebody about to take your head off, the precise present moment is where your attention needs to be. This is true both in training and when defending yourself from a real life assault. When you partner up with somebody who is experienced, they just seem to have an air of certainty about them. A black belt will usually only be very fractionally faster than say a brown belt. However, the black belt will usually have a far greater air of confidence and self assuredness when compared to lower grades. This is often referred to as fighting spirit, the focus of ones will and clarity of purpose with no (or at least, very few) mental distractions or doubts.
People who have achieved this level of spirit in training and/or in real life altercations will very often be a force to be reckoned with in other areas of their lives too. If they can be very present under the intensity of combat (even simulated) then they will be able to some extent to transfer this presence and focus to other areas of their lives.
I read years ago that soldiers who have been in actual combat reported afterwards that they have never felt “so alive”. That is not because they actually enjoyed the combat, but the fact they could die any second is a great incentive to intensely focus themselves in the present moment. I’m not suggesting that we all rush of and join the force and seek real combat, but our martial arts training does have some overlap with this phenomenon!